Stoicism and Christianity

Tomorrow is the big event on Stoicism for Everyday Life in London, at which Mark Vernon and I will be discussing the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity. Mark has an interesting story to tell – he was a priest, who then left Christianity and found an alternative in Greek philosophy (particularly Plato) and depth psychology. He’s recently started going to church again. As for me, I was never a Christian, but found a form of practical spirituality in ancient philosophy. This year, I’ve also been going to church and trying in my own pretty haphazard way to follow Jesus.

So, thinking about our workshop tomorrow, I’m wondering what are the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity? Here are some initial thoughts, please chime in with your own thoughts too.

Similarities

1) Serving God / the Logos

I think one of the main similarities, one of the ways in which Stoicism anticipated Christianity, is the idea of serving the will of God. Neither Stoicism or Christianity demand that God or the Gods do your will (and bless you with children, or a good harvest, or a good hunt etc), which is really a form of operational magic, but rather that you do God’s will, that you accept the will of God and try to serve it.

We should also note that the Stoics were monotheists - they followed Heraclitus in believing in one Logos. In this they can be compared to the evolving monotheism of Judaism, particularly that of Moses around two centuries earlier. Later Christians would draw on the Stoic concept of the Logos, particularly in the marvelous opening to the Gospel of St John. I wonder if one could argue that Stoicism is in some ways more monotheistic than Christianity, in that there is no opposing Enemy, no angels and demons, and no Trinity? There is just the Logos.

Anyway, back to this idea of giving up your will and serving the Logos. Cleanthes said: ‘Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny, Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.’  Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus anticipates, I think, some of the noble sentiments of the Lord’s Prayer:

O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.

This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.

They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.

O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.

There is a sort of ‘inner magic’ in this attitude of acceptance of God’s will – it frees you from anxiety and fear, while giving you the courage to press on and do the right thing.

2) What is the highest thing in your life? Who or what are you serving?

Another important idea in both Stoicism and Christianity is the question of what is the most important thing in your life. What do you serve? What is your god or master? Because everything will follow from that. There’s a similar idea in Plato – if you make public approval your God, then you make yourself the slave of the public, and will have to dance to their tune. If you make money your god, then you will have to dance to that tune, and bend and twist in accordance with your master.

One of the things I think I have been searching for in life is something or someone to serve. I think that’s true of a lot of people. And in a way, my career initially involved serving a succession of bad masters. Then I became a freelance journalist, which is in a way the ultimate humanist illusion – you’re ‘working for your self’. In fact, I found, that often meant I was anxiously seeking validation from ‘the public’, my new master.

I have been trying, not entirely successfully, to switch from serving the outer master of public approval, to serving what Epictetus calls the God Within, what Jesus calls the Kingdom. Because that is a master worthy of service. That involves a switch in the centre of your self, an an evolution from a self based on appearances (looking good to others) to a self rooted in service to God. I know that sounds pretty fancy and pious for an idle and vain sod like me, but that’s the aspiration at least, even if the actuality falls well short of that.

3) Inner service, not external spectacle

Related to this idea of serving the God Within is the idea in both Stoicism and Christianity of being wary of ostentatious worship of God, because you might really be showing off to other people. Epictetus says ‘when you’re thirsty, take a little water in your mouth, spit it out, and tell no one.’ And Jesus also talks about how people who pray very ostentatiously have already got their reward here on Earth.

4) Askesis

As Pierre Hadot has explored, early Christianity also took on the Stoics’ idea of askesis – the idea of the spiritual life involving training of the mind, the passions and the body. Indeed, the desert fathers developed this idea of askesis into asceticism, into a very rigorous programme of mental and particularly physical self-discipline. The idea of askesis is still strong in Orthodox Christianity, which in general seems to me much closer to Greek philosophy, while modern Evangelicalism seems to have thrown that entire tradition out in favour of loud and slightly soupy declarations of love for Jesus. However, I understand Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises are growing in popularity among Evangelicals, so perhaps the idea of spiritual training is making a comeback.

5) Serving the City of God before the City of Man

Christianity also developed the Stoics’ idea of the cosmopolis – the City of God – and the idea that the good person should try and serve the cosmopolis first, and their own particular tribe second. This is a radical idea, in that it breaks through tribal and racial barriers and insists that all humans share a divine nature. What a beautiful idea it is.

OK, so what are the differences?

Differences

1) The Logos made flesh

While Christianity drew on the Stoic idea of the Logos, there is a crucial difference. Christ is, according to St John, the Logos made flesh. There is a big difference between serving a rather distant and unknowable ‘force’ or providence, and serving a flesh-and-blood person, who was born in a particular place and time, who wept for us, who suffered and died for us. I think in some ways it is easier emotionally to love and serve a person rather than a pantheistic force – though it is also perhaps harder intellectually!

The relationship with God in Judeo-Christianity is very different to the Stoics’ relationship to the Logos. For the Stoics, it’s rather like the relationship between an aristocratic English (or aristocratic Roman) father and their son – rather distant, intellectual, and based on cold ideas of duty and virtue. In Judeo-Christianity it’s much more, well, Jewish – loud, emotional, needy, constantly bursting into arguments, constant back-and-forth, with God just as needy as humans. The relationship with God is more emotional, more sensual, more (dare I say it) erotic than in Greek philosophy (although there is an argument that this erotic aspect of worship is in Plato too). The Jewish God is hungry for our love, for our praise, and when we turn to Him he runs to meet us. Compare Cleanthes’ Hymn to one of David’s Psalms, or indeed to the passionate and weepy conversion experience of St Augustine, and you get a sense of the difference.

2) Christianity is much more emotional and needy!

Just to elaborate on the point above – Christianity is far more emotional, it seems to me, than Greek philosophy – full of sobs, and groans, and wails of anger or despair, as well as exultation and ecstasy. Again, the Psalms of David are a good indication of this. Though of course there are traditions in Christianity that are more wary of the emotions – particularly Orthodox Christianity. And there’s a pleading, even a begging, to Jewish and Christian prayer – please God, release us from our suffering, please God, free our people, please God, heal our sickness, please God, send comfort, please please please. This is very different to the proud self-reliance of Stoicism. Epictetus wrote: ‘Zeus says: “If you want any good, get it from yourself.” Well, you can see the difference.

3) Christianity believes in grace

Elaborating on the last quote from Epictetus – Christians believe much more in external assistance from God, in the Holy Spirit, in Grace and its power to save people and transform them, when they have reached rock bottom. The Stoics think any help must come from your reason, not from God (although our reason of course comes from God). This is a major difference, and one of the reasons I moved beyond Stoicism to Christianity, because I believe in grace – in moments when God lifts us up and puts us back on our feet.

4) Christianity believes in Satan!

Another massive difference is that Christians tend to believe in the Enemy – in an evil rival to God who somehow or other is allowed to control a lot of what happens here on Earth, and who seeks to tempt us and to destroy us. Not only that, but the Enemy (Satan, Lucifer) has a whole horde of evil minions too. Stoicism sometimes talks about the Enemy (in Epictetus for example), but the Enemy is typically our lower self, our bad habits or (in Platonism and Roman Stoicism) our more bestial self as opposed to our more divine self.

The Christian universe is, therefore, in some ways a much weirder, more polytheistic, and more dangerous place, teeming with evil spirits trying to destroy us. The Greek philosopher would look on the world of the gospels – filled with people possessed by devils – and think ‘what superstitious madness is this?’ There is barely a reference to demonic possession in Greek philosophy. If someone is ill, it’s because of bad thinking or bad habits. In some ways, I think this is a more helpful attitude from a therapeutic perspective – if someone has depression or anxiety or hears voices, it will just freak them out even more if you say ‘this is the Devil trying to drag you to Hell for eternity’.

I often find Christianity (and modern Christians) quite off-putting in their belief in evil demons. It always seemed quite primitive to me, like a backward step after Socrates rather than an evolution forward. But then I suppose Socrates had a daemon too, and the Stoics did believe in pursuing eudaimonia (having a kindly daemon within) as opposed to kakadaimonia(having an evil daemon within)…so maybe there are more spirits in Greek philosophy than we realize! And maybe Greek philosophy is a bit naive in its understanding of evil, and its belief that evil is always simply ignorance – Dostoevsky would certainly argue this. Which brings me to the next point.

5) Human nature is fallen in Christianity, and perfectible in Greek philosophy

In Christianity, because of Original Sin or what-have-you, human nature is inherently fallen, inherently prone to fucking up. We can use our reason to improve ourselves, but we have to rely on God to forgive and help us, and we’re unlikely to be perfect while we’re here on Earth. In Greek philosophy, human nature is perfectible through reason alone. Nature has made us rational, and we can use our reason to become like Socrates. We can become a virtuoso in the art of living.

To me, while I struggle with the Christian story of how we got so fucked up (the apple, the serpent etc), I find their definition of human nature more realistic than Socrates’ or Aristotle’s. If our nature is inherently rational and all we have to do is ‘follow our nature’, how come there are so few sages? We’re like a species of plant where only one in every billion blossoms. It’s a pretty fucked up sort of nature.

6) Christians are much more certain about the afterlife than Stoics

Christians have a much clearer eschatology than Stoics – although of course this has evolved over the centuries and hardened into ecclesiastical doctrine. They believe, on the whole, in the resurrection of the body either in heaven for eternity, or in hell / annihilation. Catholics also believed, for many centuries, in purgatory. Stoics, by contrast, are not sure what they believe about the afterlife – they barely mention it. Plato, by the by, seemed to believe in reincarnation (like Pythagoras), but this may have been just a story.

Christians also have a very different eschatology to Stoics – they believe that all of creation is fallen, but it will all be redeemed in the End of Days, when Jesus returns. Stoics, by contrast, believe things will just carry on for a bit, and then everything will burst into flames, and then everything will start again. Both pretty wacky theories, although the Stoic story seems to be closer to where astrophysics is at now, with its theories of multiple big bangs.

Another important difference with regard to modern Stoicism and Christianity is that many modern Stoics are atheist and don’t necessarily believe in the Logos or Providence, but still believe in developing your rational agency to do the right thing. So in that sense, one of the things that appeals to me about Stoicism is it appeals to both theists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) and hardcore atheists like, say, Derren Brown.

7) Christians are much bigger on community, on myth, ritual, music, dance, symbolism, stories

This is a huge difference, and I think is the reason Christianity became a world religion and Stoicism never did. It appeals not just to the intellect but to the emotions, the unconscious, the body, and to our desire to come together to celebrate life and God. This is one of the big reasons I have moved beyond Stoicism to Christianity – my desire for collective religious life is not satisfied by philosophy clubs, much as I love philosophy clubs. They leave too much of me out.

8) In Christianity, love is more important than rationality

As Jean Vanier put it, a mentally disabled person would to Aristotle be defective, sub-human. To Christ, they would be just as beautiful as any other child of God. I think this is partly why Christianity is much better at community than Stoicism – because communities need to be grounded in love, not rationality. If a community is grounded in rationality, it immediately leads to a stiff hierarchy of the rational. Love, by contrast, resists hierarchies. Love is gentle, vulnerable, humble, serving.

Well, those are some initial thoughts. What have I got wrong or missed out?

Comments:

  • Andrew McGill says:

    Very useful and interesting ideas.

    I think that another difference between the two beliefs are Christians forgive people who cause them troubles. Stoics never forgive because although they might feel the physical pain, they would not feel the insult. A Stoic’s country might be invaded, they might loose their wife and family, they might loose all of their material goods, but they would still have with them everything that they own. Stoics are only concerned about what they can control – their inner qualities, their virtues. In this way a stoic stops themselves form being hurt because it is impossible for an outside force to hurt them. This is easier to follow for verbal insults than physical ones, but even for physical ones it is foolish to be critical of the person who hurt you because of a fault they have that is likely to be common to everyone. .

    On point 5 of the differences between the two believes, I think that for Roman Stoics, human nature was not perfectible, but that it should be actively followed as it is – both human nature in general and our own individual natures. They believed most virtues were the original human qualities and that if we did not follow them then the modern world must have corrupted corrupted them and then reason could be used to untangle the individual from their bad modern habits. (the other virtues are those that go against human nature. e.g courage which is a virtue that make someone do something they would not have done through their nature)

  • Stephen says:

    Thank you for such an interesting and for me, unexpected post. I tend to see Stoicism and Organised religion as diametrically opposed to one another. Christianity, well in the Catholic form anyway (my upbringing) promotes submission to authority, surrender of self in obedience to canon law etc. Whereas Stoicism seems to point to self reliance on self, not anthropic authority, and a direction guided by a virtuous moral compass, not self-serving institutional prescriptions.
    I also interpret Stoic logos as wholly material not holy spiritual. In this sense I see logos as much more rational and reasoned rather than in a Christian sense of the word – divine. This idea of material rationalism is universal in the sense that it is for me intrinsic in matter – intelligence if you like – and I see a definite link with the ideas of consciousness and panprotopsychism, that is intelligence especially consciousness is present at the atomic level and is realised under certain environmental conditions.
    What follows from this is a rejection of institutional religion in all its forms. And I think that is important, for although it isn’t mentioned in the article, I sense that an important distinction is between notions of dualism and monism.
    One thing that springs to mind after reading the article is how pervasive and comforting, organised religion is. I suppose the appeal of it is explained in ideas of community and cooperation: deep evolutionary principles that humanity emerged through. So I suspect that there are more biological factors at play in organised religion rather than spiritual, even though it may feel different to this. Indeed I occasionally have to fight the urge to ‘join’ an organised community of theists, reasoning that I am being seduced by unconscious sociobiological impulses learned over hundreds of thousands of years through my ancestors. Several years ago, as an atheist and strict vegetarian, I found myself curious about Buddhism: it appealed to me through its ideas of not having a personal god in the sense of the major monotheistic religions of today, and its compassion for sentient life. The curiosity led me to reading four or five books and texts of and from that religion but I concluded that my pursuit was an abandonment of inner reliance and was in some ways a cowardly reaction to the cold lonely realism of atheism. My thoughts on how cold and lonely atheism is has changed since then but there does remain a sense that institutional religion appeals on a widespread basis, at the ‘armchair” level, perhaps not at the turnstiles.

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  • Tim Seid says:

    As you know, making these kinds of comparisons are fraught with problems. Which Christianity? Which Stoicism? A traditional interpretation of Paul or the radical New Perspective on Paul? I really appreciate you raising the issue, but I think what we need is not only to study the ancient origins of Stoicism, but also to reevaluate Christian origins within the context of Hellenistic philosophy. I think we can develop a type of Stoic Christianity based in the letters of Paul that can make use of the great work people like you, Donald Robertson, John Sellars, and others are doing but within a Christian context.

  • Mavis Smith says:

    I worry about what Christian teaching does to very young children – if you are good, you will go to heaven, if you are bad, you will go to hell. It is stressed that these states are permanent. However it all ends, whether oblivion or something else, it is unlikely to be permanent. Nothing in the universe is permanent. Christianity has taught people to be afraid of death. I’m against it.

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  • Quora says:

    How much are the teachings of Jesus influenced by the Cynics and the Stoics?

    I’m going to take on half of your question and talk about similarities as well as differences between Stoicism and Christianity. I hope someone else knows more than I do about Cynicism. I’m going to pick up some key points from an essay by another au…

  • Kamil says:

    I would like to correct one thing: that Christianity confesses resurrection of the body and the new creation, not resurrection in heaven.

    And there need not to be some opposition between rationality and love, especially when we take the Eastern Orthodox ascetic understanding of mind or reason more or less being similar to Hebrew understanding of ‘heart’.

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